ONA celebrates retiring executive director Jane McDonnell

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After three days spent delving into audience engagement, revenue models, virtual reality and open-source software projects, the Online News Association’s 17th annual conference ended on a decidedly simpler note: with raw emotion and a handmade quilt.

Those who worked closely with her say ONA executive director Jane McDonnell had an incredible ability to bring people together. So it’s only fitting that her parting gift at the Online Journalism Awards, her last major appearance before her December retirement, was a quilt made from the T-shirts of each of the seven conferences she oversaw.

When McDonnell took over in 2008, the lack of diversity in the growing organization was a chief concern. Eight years later, 35 percent of those attending the annual conference are people of color. That was evident in the diversity of the board members past and present who lined the stage to recognize McDonnell.

“Not many people know that Jane was a music major in college,” said ONA President Josh Hatch. “She has made a symphony out of ONA.

“I think everyone who has worked with or for her would agree: It’s not for nothing that we have hundreds of ‘I Love Jane’ buttons in this room.”

Video testimonials shared by those who worked with her yielded many adjectives and descriptors: Funny. Smart. In charge. “Says no nicer than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Smart-ass. Great hugger with an infectious laugh. Not particularly strong with math. Formidable margarita skills.

McDonnell — and many onstage and in the audience — cried as board members presented her with an honorary award and with the large, colorful quilt of ONA memories.

“If I had known this was going to be so hard, I would’ve stayed,” she joked.

McDonnell was completely surprised when board members spread out the quilt and held it up for her to take in. Members of the board worked together to dig up the old T-shirts (and order those that were missing); Diversity Committee Chair Benét Wilson did the sewing.

“She wants everyone to work together for the greater good — and people want to do that for Jane,” Wilson said. “I never do big quilts anymore. But it’s Jane, so you do it for the team. She’s worth the larger quilt.”

With the quilt wrapped around her shoulders, a tearful McDonnell addressed the crowd.

“I’ve been talking a lot in the past couple of days about opening doors,” she said. “If people love ONA, and they love the conference, I think it’s because they felt that we opened the door.

“Open the doors all the time for the people that you see who need it and are worth it,” she said. “If you do that, this profession will be amazing.”

ONA deputy director Irving Washington, who will take the reins from McDonnell in January, presented her with an honorary award. McDonnell feels confident she is leaving the organization in excellent hands and that it’s moving in the right direction.

“When I look out at the room, the people here, the collaboration and the diversity — I just think, ‘This is where we should be going,’” she said.

Clare Ramirez contributed to this report.